CAIRO // Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi defiantly stood by a controversial edict giving him wide powers and a planned vote on a new constitution in a speech late last night.
Mr Morsi announced a national dialogue meeting for tomorrow, inviting political forces and legal experts to discuss a road map for the country after a referendum on the constitution scheduled for December 15.
But he also made dark remarks about a conspiracy in Egypt to derail the country’s democratic transition and promised to bring to justice those who used violence or committed vandalism in protests over the past three days.
At leat six people died and more than 700 were injured in clashes outside the presidential palace on Wednesday night between Mr Morsi’s supporters and a broad coalition of liberals, anti-Islamists and secular forces.
“I state clearly and openly: while we respect of freedom of expression that is guaranteed to one and all, I cannot tolerate that any person perpetrate any killing or vandalism,” he said. “I cannot tolerate any willful act of vandalism or killing, with premeditation and full purpose, or to intimidate the unsuspecting civilians or vandalize public or private property or incite subversion against legitimacy.”
Those who “infiltrated” peaceful protests, and others who allegedly were involved in hiring “thugs” and providing weapons to youths would be found and charged with crimes, he said.
Mr Morsi defended his decision to give himself powers beyond the oversight of the judiciary as a necessary act to protect Egypt from forces bent on its instability, but suggested he would be open to an amendment on the most controversial element of the decree.
"Egypt will survive this dilemma," he said in closing. "I wish you all success and I urge you to cooperate in a friendly atmosphere. May God save our homeland and may God almighty guide our steps forward and may God's peace be upon you all."
Opposition forces gathering outside the palace walls last night for a third straight day reacted furiously to the speech, chanting for “the fall of the regime”. They stood outside a barbed wire fence erected earlier in the day by the president’s republican guards.
The president’s remarks came as pressure mounted for him to backtrack on his decisions. Earlier in the day, the Sunni world's top Islamic body called on him to compromise with opposition groups.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has no respect for human rights and legitimacy," said Khaled Shalaby, a veteran of protests in Egypt since 2003, in an interview before the speech. "Ruling for them is a one-way ticket. They got into power and they won't leave."
Mr Morsi plunged Egypt into a new political crisis on November 22 when he issued a declaration giving himself unchecked powers above the judiciary in a bid to prevent what he and his supporters claim was a conspiracy to undermine the country's democratic transition.
He also gave the 100-member committee tasked with rewriting the constitution another two months to complete their work.
After massive street protests erupted against his decision last week, however, the committee rushed through an approval of the draft constitution despite more than 20 of its members walking out of the proceedings. The combination of the declaration and a constitution written largely by Islamists, opposition groups say, has galvanised opposition against Mr Morsi's regime.
Resignations from officials and advisers were adding to the pressure on Mr Morsi to yield to demands to scrap his declaration and restart the process of writing a new constitution.
Rafiq Habib, a Christian intellectual who crossed sectarian lines last year to join the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said yesterday he was resigning from his post as an adviser to the president and from politics in general.
Mr Habib’s announcement brought the number of officials and advisers who have resigned to nine, including the head of a committee that was to oversee a vote on the draft constitution, a state media executive and six members of the presidential advisory council. Brotherhood supporters were not present in large numbers last night, but officials from the group lashed out in statements and television interviews yesterday at anti-Morsi protesters for opposing democracy and trying to overthrow a legitimately elected president.
Mahmoud Hussein, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused opposition protesters of vandalism and inciting violence in a statement published on the English-language site of the group, Ikhwanweb.com.
"The use of violence is nothing to do with real revolutionaries' ethics," he said.
Another Arabic-language statement issued by the group yesterday went further, saying that Brotherhood members successfully blocked a "conspiracy" on Wednesday for anti-Morsi protesters to storm into the palace and remove the president through force.
"The conspiracy that failed was carried out by those who fought the revolution and conspired and are still conspiring against it, and those who use illicit money stolen from the Egyptian people that they are receiving from abroad," it said.
The biggest development in the coalescing opposition to the president's actions was a strongly worded statement from Al Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, which hands down fatwas on behalf of the millennium-old mosque and university.
"The situation should be handled according to what preserves the unity of the nation and the safety of its sons," the academy said in a statement. "The president of the republic must freeze the recent constitutional declaration and engage immediately in a dialogue that includes all political forces, without exception and without preconditions."
Mr Morsi was also facing resistance from within the ranks of the ministry of foreign affairs, where a group of more than 200 current and retired diplomats signed a letter yesterday refusing to oversee votes from expatriates at embassies starting on Saturday. The ministry, which didn't comment on the letter, said the votes would go ahead as scheduled.
The Egyptian stock market shed 10.4 billion Egyptian pounds (Dh6.2bn) and the country's currency declined to its lowest level in eight years, underlining investors' worries that the fresh turmoil would imperil the country's economic recovery.
Despite the growing tensions, a military intervention in the deadlock was highly unlikely, said retired Major General Sameh Seif Al Yazal, who maintains close contacts to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
"The army will not go to the streets voluntarily," he said. "They will only go if they are given an order from Morsi and I don't think he will do that."
Maj Gen Al Yazal said that the situation in Egypt was different than during the 18-day uprising against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, where the people were united against an administration. Now, he said, there are two opposing political groups and it was not the place for the military to play a role.
He was sharply critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, which detained dozens of protesters on Wednesday night and interrogated them.
Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, told Turkey's Anadolu news agency that the group's members detained 83 people and accused them of inciting violence near the palace and killing Brotherhood members.
Maj Gen Al Yazal said the move by what amounted to a "militia" was unprecedented.
"This is what is escalating the situation," he said. "This militia is playing the role of the police, arresting people, interrogating them in the streets. It is very illegal, but I don't think the government will do anything because the president is from the Muslim Brotherhood. If other groups start forming militias, like the Salafists and the 6th of April Movement, we will have another Iraq."
* With additional reporting from Stephen Kalin